The best part of the trilogy is never the ending. For the past few years, the most famous and beloved couple in the recent history of American popular music have been telling us a story, and it’s been a riveting one. Two years ago, Beyoncé gave us Lemonade, an album of starting depth and intimacy and urgency. She was a wronged woman, furious and vengeful and ultimately forgiving. She whisked us all along, dropping hints and venting rage, wrapping her own personal family struggles up with images of black strength and femininity. Last year, with 4:44, JAY-Z gave us the other side of the story: The man who’d committed the wrong, penitent, begging forgiveness, laying his own flaws and failings before his wife and the rest of the world. It was a side of Jay we’d never seen before: a larger-than-life figure brought down to earth, his painful humanity obvious to all.
So we got the accusation, and we got the apology. Now we get the ending to that story, the reconciliation. As storytelling, this is a perfectly satisfying ending. It’s a happy story: a couple going through hell and then falling in love all over again. Everything Is Love is a true collaborative album, with neither half of the couple taking the lead. The two of them trade off verses and even lines, rapping and singing about each other, showing warmth and chemistry. “Baby, the ups and downs are worth it,” Beyoncé sings, reassuringly. “Long way to go but we’ll work it / We’re flawed but we’re still perfect for each other.” It’s the moment that the past two years, the past three albums, have been building toward. It’s a document of a marriage saved, of a love rekindled. On a certain level, it’s beautiful.
And beyond the simple storytelling of the album, there is also the subtext. As gamesmanship, this is a tiny masterpiece. With stars on the level of Beyoncé and JAY-Z, it’s never just about the music, or about the story that the lyrics tell. It’s about the way they present it to the world. Less than 24 hours before Everything Is Love came out, Nasir — the collaboration between Nas, Jay’s old nemesis, and Kanye West, his estranged protege — hit streaming services. Things have been chilly between Kanye and Jay in recent years, and the release of Everything Is Love works as a masterful, imperious upstaging. The icy precision of the Everything Is Love release — coming out in the middle of a Jay/Beyoncé London show, with even the video that was shot at the Louvre kept under wraps — stands in stark contrast to the chaos of West’s month of Wyoming-sessions releases.
And then there’s “Friends,” the song where JAY-Z certainly seems to be putting Kanye West in his place. After West groused about Jay and Beyoncé not coming to his wedding, Jay lays it out: He had a marriage to fix, and he wasn’t going to leave his house for anything, no matter what. Without mentioning West’s name, Jay explains how his real friends would understand this, namechecking the list of cronies that we’ve been hearing about since Reasonable Doubt. He subtly unloads on West’s recent antics without spelling things out: “Y’all switching sides like NBA teams just after halftime,” “Tight circle, no squares, I’m geometrically opposed to you / Y’all like to try angles, y’all like to troll, do you?” If you’ve been watching the way the dynamic among all these insanely famous people has been playing out for the past 15 years or so — and we all have — then this is a fascinating chapter, a subtle airing of grievances that almost qualifies as industrial sabotage. All these aging titans are, relatively speaking, fighting over scraps, and Post Malone is probably going to outsell all of them combined anyway, but their ongoing soap opera continues to enthrall.
But sadly, Everything Is Love isn’t just storytelling, and it isn’t just gamesmanship, either. It has to function as music. And it’s not particularly good at that. As music, Everything Is Love is sprawling, expansive, indolent. It’s music for the waiting rooms of expensive cosmetic-surgery clinics. It’s warm, lush, content everything-is-great music, released into a world where everything is most assuredly not great for most people. It’s a deep purr of contentment, which means it has none of the raw wounded pride of Lemonade or the urgent self-searching of 4:44. For me, at least, listening to it is like looking at someone else’s vacation photos on Facebook. It’s nice, and I’m happy for them, but I ultimately don’t care.
It doesn’t help things that the musical template they’re working with here is basically the same as what Jay and Beyoncé were doing on “Shining” and “Top Off,” the two DJ Khaled collabs that they released over the last few years. Beyoncé and JAY-Z have made some great records together over the years, but they don’t always bring the best out in each other. They tend to make each other sound comfortable. They ease onto each other’s records. “Crazy In Love” will probably always be their best song as collaborators since that’s the one where they were both full of energy and enthusiasm — where they both seemed to want to impress each other. (“Drunk In Love” is great, too, but it’s great despite Jay rapping about fucking next to paintings and being like Ike Turner, not because of it.) And Everything Is Love is nothing if not comfortable.
On a pure production level, Everything Is Love is closer to late-period Rick Ross than it is to Beyoncé and Jay’s respective recent records. It’s fancy midtempo hotel-bar rap music. Every once in a while, Beyoncé and JAY-Z adapt the trappings of trap, as on the single “Apeshit,” with Quavo and Offset on adlibs and ghostwriting. But they aren’t trying to jump into the sandbox with the kids on this album, and they aren’t trying to follow their own respective aesthetic journeys, as they did on Lemonade or 4:44. The drums are slow. Horns and tinkly pianos are everywhere. A surprising amount of the production comes from Cool & Dre, the beatmakers behind much of the mid-’00s Miami luxury-rap mini-boom. The hardest beat on the album comes from, of all possible people, TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, who at least gives some neck-snap drums to “Lovehappy.” There are some pretty sounds on the album, but there’s no electricity, no experimental drive.
It’s not that Jay and Beyoncé aren’t trying. They are. Their vocal performances on Everything Is Love are some of the most inventive and alive that they’ve given lately. Beyoncé’s voice remains a devastating ray of sunlight, and her delivery verges ever-closer to straight-up rapping. She gets some great lines in, too: “My great great grandchildren already rich / That’s a lot of brown children on your Forbes list.” Jay, meanwhile, sounds more engaged by his own rapping than he has in recent years. He adapts trap cadences on “Apeshit” with the same ease that he brought to the bounce-rap of his early Timbaland collabs, and while he doesn’t have the regal asshole swagger of his younger days, the breathless fluidity is largely back.
All the money-talk from both Beyoncé and JAY-Z can get old, and it’s hard to get excited about this stuff when kids are being put into cages out there. But even in its most indolent moments, Everything Is Love still carries undercurrents of struggle, of the things that its makers have had to overcome. “I said no to the Super Bowl,” Jay huffs on “Apeshit.” “You need me, I don’t need you / Every night we in the end zone / Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.” Later on he tells a crowd to “get your hands up high like a false arrest,” an exhortation that speaks to bigger issues.
But for all the talent and the charisma of the people who made it, this is still an album that’s more fun to think about than it is to listen to. The selling point here isn’t the music; it’s the part that it plays in the larger stories of everyone involved. Placed within a career ranking of Jay’s albums, it would rank near the bottom, only ahead of stuff like Kingdom Come and The Blueprint 3 and Magna Carta Holy Grail. In Beyoncé’s career ranking, it would come dead last. Maybe a narrative arc just isn’t enough. Or maybe it’s time for these two to find a new story.
Everything Is Love is out now on Parkwood/Columbia/UMG/Roc Nation.